Route 66 offers tastes from the past

August 21, 2009 Immortalized in song and romanticized by historians, the old Route 66 begins right here in Chicago, and winds its way on a jagged course to Los Angeles.

There are, of course, diners and drive-ins along the way, including a pair of legendary restaurants in our region where fried chicken is the real star.

The 'Mother Road,'as it's called, was founded in the 1920s winding its way more than 2400 miles from Chicago to LA. In our region, it parallels Highway 55, southwest through Joliet. Two legendary stops along the route feature fried chicken on their menus. At Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket in Willowbrook, they keep things pretty straightforward.

"We have the chicken basket, which is our name. With french fries, half a chicken, french fries, coleslaw, and homemade biscuits," said Patrick Rhea, owner of Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket.

Rhea starts by dredging chicken in flour, then dunks it in whole milk, followed by seasoned breadcrumbs. It rests for several hours, before getting plunged into hot oil for about 20 minutes. Help yourself to the old-style salad bar, then dig into a real taste of American history.

"We bought the business in 1963. So we came in after I-55 was here and Route 66 was gone. The restaurant had its heyday when route 66 was right outside the front door," said Rhea.

A bit further down the road, in Romeoville, is another legendary destination for all things chicken: the mammoth White Fence Farm, which occupies well over an acre of land, housing a number of themed dining rooms.

"White Fence Farm has been around 55 years. Chicken is our specialty. We've had generations of families coming through the restaurant. We have a lot of antiques to look at. We are able to accomodate a lot of larger groups of tables. Anywhere from 10 to hundreds of people in one setting," said Larry Bigger, the Manager of the White Fence Farm.

Everybody starts off with complimentary salads, such as coleslaw, cottage cheese, beans and beets. Then it's time for fried chicken, which has been steamed, pressure-fried and then fried-to-order. Instead of bread, they offer fried corn fritters, which are both chunky and filling. Bigger says they stick what's worked for the past five decades.. and even though the famous highway no longer carries the same amount of traffic by the restaurant, it hasn't deterred customers from seeking out this taste of the past.

"The menu hasn't changed in 55 years. Most restaurants change their menus all the time. White Fence Farm is going to be the same one every year," Bigger said.

And if you keep driving southwest, highlights include the polka dot drive-in in Braidwood. The Old Log Cabin restaurant in Pontiac and the Dixie truck stop in Mclean.

The White Fence Farm
1376 Joliet Rd., Romeoville

Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket
645 Joliet Rd., Willowbrook

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